On November 29th we held our annual Ortique lecture on law and society. The lecture was started in 2010 with the opening of the Ortique Mock Trial Center in the new professional schools building, the signature new project after Hurricane Katrina.
The speakers for the lecture have been first class. The inaugural lecturer was former Attorney General Eric Holder. He was followed by:
2011 Judge Carl Stewart, Chief Judge 5th Circuit Court of Appeals
2012 Michelle Alexander, author “The New Jim Crow”
2013 Ben Crump, civil rights attorney
2014 Sunny Hostin, former CNN legal analyst
2015 Bryan Stevenson, author “Just Mercy”
2016 No lecture (Van Jones was scheduled but this was the week after the election and he was in high demand on TV)
2017 Angela Rye, CNN commentator
(Let me just say- I don’t think you can find a school in the nation that has had this line-up over the past 8 years)
A year ago I heard about the work of James Forman Jr. and we communicated about him coming to Dillard. His trip to the area last fall did not match up with our schedule, but this spring as soon as he won the Pulitzer Prize, I immediately followed up to book him for this lecture. So he came in to do a small session with pre-law students, and then informal dinner before the main event.
His lecture was powerful from the start, especially his discussion of using the phrase criminal legal system versus criminal justice system (I think I am converted and will always talk about criminal legal system). And the lecture addressed this complex relationship between black folks, crime and incarceration. With the heroin additions of the 1960 leading to rising crime and violence, black people reached out to newly elected black politicians for solutions. Often the solutions were locking up our own.
He addressed the institutional structures (racism and white supremacy) that play key roles. One of the signs was the highways built in the middle of black communities. In New Orleans, Interstate 10 had an overpass built through the black community (Treme) along Claiborne Avenue in 1969. The same story is true from Interstate 630 in Little Rock which has separated the city by race even today.
Forman gave us lots of ideas, but his main challenge was to make sure we our asking ourselves, what are we going to do? He discussed the power of local prosecutors, DAs, sheriffs and judges. And he encouraged people to become public defenders. I’m really looking forward to reading this book. I hope you will too.